About this Recording
8.573521 - SCHMITT, F.: Antoine et Cléopâtre Suites Nos. 1 and 2 / Le Palais Hanté (Buffalo Philharmonic, Falletta)
English  French 

Florent Schmitt (1870–1958)
Antoine et Cléopâtre: Suites Nos. 1 and 2 • Le Palais hanté


Florent Schmitt studied composition under Massenet and Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire, where he was awarded the Prix de Rome. He was also a Wagner enthusiast, with Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel among his close friends. Schmitt’s own style is often described as ‘eclectic’—blending influences and inspiration from wherever the spirit happened to be. For most of his career he worked as a music critic with a sharp pen for wit and irony. Occasionally brash but most often with humour, he ‘praised’ mediocrity as a reference for highlighting masterworks from composers as diverse as Saint-Saëns, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Schmitt also signed on early to the influence jazz would have on the future of serious music.

With such divergent interests, we are not surprised that Schmitt’s original scores comprise a potpourri of titles, with many salon pieces for piano and voice, a small wealth of chamber music, orchestral settings and scores for theatre, including ballet and stage plays.

Of the latter, Schmitt’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is a standout for its imagery in sound. The music was initially performed as ballet scenes between the acts of a new production of the play at the Paris Opéra in 1920. The French poet André Gide provided an updated translation, and the principal dancer in the rôle of Cleopatra was the inimitable Ida Rubinstein, whose legendary mystique held the audience in thrall (she later inspired Ravel’s Boléro).

Written in 1607, in five acts and thirteen scenes, Shakespeare’s storyline for Antony and Cleopatra offers a saga of star-crossed love and the rivalry of the Roman Empire with Egypt. At the dénouement, Marc Antony dies in the arms of Cleopatra, who then takes her own life by tempting a poisonous asp.

Mark Antony:
Now, for the love of Love and her soft hours,
Let’s not confound the time with conference harsh:
There’s not a minute of our lives should stretch
Without some pleasure now. What sport tonight?

Give me some music; music, moody food
Of us that trade in love.

Schmitt provided an evocative score for the première, from which he later extracted two concert suites, each featuring scenes from the drama. Overall, the suites are replete with Impressionist hues, although Schmitt seems to emulate the orchestral manner of Richard Strauss and others of the era. The movement titles are descriptive of the scenes at hand.

Suite No. 1 begins with Antony and Cleopatra in the throes of love, set within an idyllic canvas tone-brushed with the horns over lush colours in the strings and woodwinds. An Eastern-mode chant in the oboe represents Cleopatra’s allure, which the conflicted Antony cannot resist. A brass fanfare marks the scene for Le Camp de Pompée (At Pompey’s Camp), a descriptive intermezzo prior to imminent chaos. Bataille d’Actium (Battle of Actium) occurs first on land, then at sea, and ultimately ends with the defeat of Egypt by Rome. The music opens with nervous, jagged horns, marked by a spate of Stravinsky-like effects. Various fragments offer brief souvenirs of the lovers, but the scene is soon retaken by brazen accents from the orchestra en masse.

Suite No. 2 opens with Nuit au Palais de la Reine (Night in the Palace of the Queen)—a nocturne intoned by the English horn over scintillating timbres in the orchestra. Sultry progressions suggest a lovers’ tryst at the queen’s Mediterranean domain. In turn follows Orgie et Danses (Orgy and Dances), a night of sensual revelry. With coy rhythm and harmony on the wing, listeners may note a stylistic blend of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre (The Rite of Spring) and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. The frenzy reaches a climax on a massive chord, which conjures another love scene, with oriental intonations cast for sensuous oboes, doubtless suggesting the antique Egyptian shawm. With serpentine phrases, Cleopatra’s last moment is at hand at the languorous close.

For the final movement, Le Tombeau de Cléopâtre (The Tomb of Cleopatra), Schmitt invokes symbolic bird chant and cryptic accents, with suggestive roles for woodwinds, again with piquant phrases in the oboe. The orchestra gradually gains in momentum and density, representing the tragic consequences of the dénouement.

We are surprised to learn—apart from Shakespeare—the prose and poetry of American writer Edgar Allan Poe has likely inspired more musical settings than any other author after his time. Poe’s evocative lines were widely translated across Europe (including Russia, where he achieved ‘cult’ status). His stories and poems likewise received special attention from the French poets Charles Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarmé. The latter’s Symbolist translation of Poe’s The Haunted Palace of 1839 provided a source for Schmitt’s Study for ‘The Haunted Palace’, which he completed in 1904.

Poe’s original verse comprises just six stanzas in a total of 48 lines. Several of his cryptic phrases contain direct reference to music:

Wanderers in that happy valley,
Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically,
To a lute’s well-tuned law,

A troop of Echoes, whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.

And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the encrimson’d windows see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody.

Mallarmé wisely translated Poe’s verse into French prose, i.e. without improvising new rhymes in a different language. In turn, Schmitt’s score appears to follow the tempo and nuance of Mallarmé’s setting, embellished by a lush orchestration and an evocative sound-scape of Symbolist imagery.

For reference: the French Symbolist poets of the late nineteenth century sought to express the function or spirit of basic terms and ideas, i.e. beyond literal meanings. For example, as in Mallarmé’s translation of Poe—the term “yellow” becomes “claire”—which means “brilliant hue.” In turn, Schmitt most surely took his timbre cues from the poet’s pen. We wonder if the composer’s palette of tonal pigments was intentionally derived as a ‘colour wheel’ of discrete effects.

As a droll aside, in 1898, the witty French author Jules Renard noted about his compatriot’s verse: “Mallarmé cannot be translated, not even into French.”

Edward Yadzinski

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